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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Schuller send-off

Renowned conductor ready to lead his final Northwest Bach Festival

Why is Gunther Schuller, the Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winner, stepping down as the Northwest Bach Festival’s artistic director after 20 years?

“I mean, I’m 87!” said Schuller, by phone from his Boston home. “I think Pierre Boulez and I are the only conductors of this age and older. … It’s about time I find some leisure to actually read a book that I buy, or listen to some recordings.”

For decades, Schuller has been leading, in his own words, “an extraordinarily busy life.” He has had multiple simultaneous careers in music – composer, pianist, conductor and jazz scholar, to name just four – and he has routinely racked up a million air miles a year. Now, he said, it’s time to cut back on the air travel and that means saying farewell to the Northwest Bach Festival – but not until after this season’s concerts, Saturday through March 24. He’ll conduct two of the festival’s four concerts.

And after that? Schuller will keep plenty busy. His career as a composer (his Pulitzer in 1994 was for composition) is going stronger than ever. He said he has recently had seven commissions, five of which he has completed.

“I’m getting more and more commissions the older I get,” Schuller said. “I seem to have been rediscovered.”

He is also nibbling away on the second part of his autobiography. The first part, “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty,” was published in 2011. The book illustrates what Schuller means when he says he has lived an “extraordinarily busy life.” As one book critic noted, Schuller is the “only musician in the world who can claim to have played with Maria Callas, Miles Davis, Ethel Merman, Frank Sinatra, Igor Stravinsky and Arturo Toscanini.”

“The first volume was 640 pages – and I only get up to 1960,” Schuller said.

When he first took over the Northwest Bach Festival in 1993, eyebrows were raised in the music world. His reputation as a composer was largely in modern 12-tone music – a long, long way from Bach.

“Here comes this 12-tone composer, either famous or infamous, depending on where you stand on that, and, gosh, this guy does a Bach festival?” Schuller said. “How dare he? How can he do that? Of course, that’s a stupid question because I’ve studied Bach since I was a teenager.”

He’s proud of what the Northwest Bach Festival has become – an expanded celebration, which includes Bach pieces along with works from carefully selected pre-Bach and post-Bach composers. It has become a showcase for talent from all over the world.

“I’ve brought in fantastic artists all the time – because I have access to fantastic artists, because of my wide connections in both the vocal and instrumental worlds,” Schuller said. “It has given me great pleasure to bring in Christopher O’Riley (who returns this year) or James Christie, the organist, or Michael Faust (flutist) from Cologne, Germany. I’m so very proud of what has been done. And the community of Spokane – according to what Gertrude Harvey (the festival organizer) tells me – realizes that.”

Schuller brought in cellist Zuill Bailey to wow audiences last year, and now, Bailey will wow festival audiences for years to come. Bailey has been named the new artistic director, beginning with next season. Bailey faces the daunting task of following Schuller.

“It’s a great responsibility, because of how high the bar is set by him,” Bailey said.

He said he hopes to “cultivate and continue” what has become so “magnificently successful” under Schuller. The two first met several years ago when Schuller heard Bailey play Bach in a concert in Santa Fe, N.M. The two musicians engaged in what Bailey called a “wonderful, beautiful conversation” about music and its place in life.

“I went up to him, euphoric, and, well, we sort of bonded,” Schuller said.

Bailey will end the festival this year with a March 24 concert of the six Complete Bach Cello Suites. Bailey has become famous for these suites after he recorded them several years ago. The recording surprised Bailey by landing at the top of Billboard’s classical charts.

Playing the six complete suites all in one sitting, said Bailey, is a musical “Ironman experience.” He’ll dive into these incredibly difficult and intricate pieces, and “two and a half hours later, we’ll be on the other side.”

“It’s quite an event, and it is, in many ways, life-changing for the audience,” Bailey said.

Schuller certainly thinks so, after hearing it in Santa Fe.

“I have never heard any presentation of Bach – and I been to hundreds of concerts going way back to 50 or 60 years ago – and I have never heard anything quite so wonderful,” Schuller said.

Meanwhile, the rest of this year’s festival will be, in Bailey’s words, “absolutely, 100 percent Gunther Schuller.”

Schuller will conduct two spectacular concerts on March 2 and March 9. The first one will pair Bach’s Cantata 157 with a post-Bach piece, Beethoven’s Mass In C.

“Everybody does Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, but nobody seems to know how good this early piece was,” Schuller said. “… It’s just wonderful and totally neglected.”

The March 9 concert will have two ambitious Bach pieces, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and the Violin Concerto No. 2. And then it will conclude with a remarkable Schuller discovery, Alessandro Striggio’s Motet for 40 Voices (“Beautiful Light”).

Until very recently, said Schuller, “that piece had not been played altogether since it was written in 1658.” It is the only work of Striggio’s to survive.

“It was revived in England and I happened to find out about it because I heard a broadcast when I was in England,” Schuller said. “I had to stop the car and listen to it, I was so overwhelmed by it.”

It will feature the voices of the Gonzaga University Chamber Singers. Schuller has added orchestration to “give color to the piece.”

The festival’s March 10 concert will be the return of pianist Christopher O’Riley (well-known as the host of public radio’s “From the Top”). He’ll play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, one of Bach’s most famous compositions for keyboard.

And then Bailey’s Ironman feat will close out this year’s festival – and the Schuller era.

“It’s a pretty amazing program, pretty rich, if I say so myself,” Schuller said.

It will also be a rich – and no doubt emotional – send-off to a man who has enriched Spokane’s cultural life for two decades.